Whether you know him as “The Laughing Saint” or “The Humorous Saint,” as named by German poet Goethe, St. Philip Neri is known by many for his humor. Rightfully so, stories have survived of his wit and mild tomfoolery, but to those who knew him best, he was a holy humorist, never a clown.
After reading and writing about St. Phillip Neri this last year, he taught me a lot about how to properly use humor in the Catholic life, and forced me to reflect on my own life. Growing up, in just about every class I can remember, I was the class clown and center of attention. I was almost universally liked and never had a problem making friends. Even as I quickly matriculated through college degrees and professional echelons, I’ve maintained a steady sense of humor.
But the words of my dad will always ring in my ear: “Son, being funny is okay, but don’t do it at the risk being a fool who can’t be taken seriously.”
Yeah, yeah, dad. I get it.
But for a while, I didn’t get it.
Not until I was older did I realize what my father meant. I can recall as early as high school JROTC when my military instructors would all tell me a similar thing: “Shaun, you’re the best leader we have, except you’re leading everyone in the wrong direction.” They were all trying to tell me the same thing: humor is good, but being a clown is destructive.
Gratefully, and before it was too late, I learned how to be humorous, but avoid looking like Private Joker.
Because a person who can be comfortable being the center of attention has to have some sense of their own ego, I was highly attracted to the life of Philip Neri. Aside him his ability to make people laugh, he was a man who contained an incredible amount of humility: so much so that his own followers had to convince him not to leave the very order he created because, to Neri, he became too popular. And at the same time, he was deeply regarded by the most serious personalities and leaders of his time to include royalty like Henry IV, other saints of his time like Francis de Sales, Robert Bellarmine, and Charles Borromeo (who actually once argued over the rights to his talents, once), and the strict Pope St. Pius V and a handful of other pope’s who constantly sought out Neri’s wisdom (and influence!).
Without a doubt, it’s a total shock to read that Neri kept a journal of jokes on his desk for occasions when dignitaries would arrive, kept a sign above his door that read “House of Christian Mirth” and played practical jokes on young seminarians — all within the arms reach of the Holy See in Rome. He had laughter alright, but how was he taken so seriously? Most saints aren’t known for their outlandish sense of humor, so what made Neri different?
In a word: humility. In 500 more words . . .
“Comedy” is an interesting word. In the ancient, medieval, and post-Renaissance world, comedy denoted amusement which was usually in reference to an unexpected triumph of a smaller character or group of characters. In a sense, the comedies were our earliest underdog stories. Modern definitions of comedy involve plot-lines that are directed to entertain through humor, inciting laughter. As the meaning of comedy changed, the word “humor” also emerged. It was introduced by French physicians to describe the balance of fluids in the body which affect one’s well-being. That word moved in the 16th century — which happened to be the time of our saint — to mean one’s whim and ability to change mood. Thus, a humorist became one who was witty and brought out joy in others.
And thinking back to my father’s words, I needed to know what a “fool” was, too. St. Paul tells use that we’re called to be fools. Speaking of himself as an apostle, he said, “We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute” (1 Cor. 4:10). But “fool” is used all over the Old Testament to describe those who — foolishly — disregard God. But what Paul is saying is that, to the spectacle of the Roman entertainment circuit and to those with earthly wisdom, Christians are fools: why worship one God? Why free slaves? Why appear to be a cannibal by eating the Body of Christ? Why follow a God who died? And so on. We are, to the world, fools.
Still, St. Neri really did appear to be a fool. He often went to meetings with half his beard or hair shaved off! That’s a fact, but in no way does calling Philip Neri a man of humor mean that he was a “funny guy.” The humorous things that he did were usually not directed to making others laugh — though they did — he wanted humility, and his sense of humor gave him that.
So some mistake him for a comedian-saint. The truth is, the great saint that Philip was did not derive from his humorous life: rather, the great humor that Philip was known for came through his saintly humility. The unexpected demeanor of Neri, his random penances and mortifications that seemed to make no sense, and the unpredictable governance of his Congregation of the Oratory is what categorically made him a man of humor, while his personal holiness and ambition to make everyone around him holy is what unconditionally made him a saint. He tells us, “The true way to advance in holy virtues, is to advance in a holy cheerfulness.”
St. Philip Neri had to become a fool — which is what he did when he wore a shirt made of heavy and itchy horse hair — in order to obtain humility. But the humility that allowed him to be mocked and laughed at conquered his ego so much that he was able to become a saint.
In apologetics and evangelization, repute means a lot. No, you don’t have to be perfect, but you do need to be able to be taken seriously, and if you want people to listen to you when you’re serious, you better strive for true humility — but a few jokes never hurt anyone.
Editor’s note: Shaun McAfee’s new book, Reform Yourself! How to Pray, Find Peace, and Grow in Faith with the Saints of the Counter-Reformation, is available now at the Catholic Answers shop.